This post was prompted by two recent/submitted papers, one of which I’m involved with, and the other of which a colleague published. They both concern what I consider the fundamental building blocks of ecology and conservation: how many of species X are there, what external forces affect those numbers, and how have they changed over time? The conservation of species is, for better or worse, the basic unit of biodiversity and the main purpose of the IUCN Red List. Ecosystems consist of species, and the number of their individuals.
Such “status, distribution, & threat (SDT)” papers are often relegated* to “natural history” journals. In the rush to be appeal to a broader audience, many taxon-specific journals (and here I’m referring primarily to ornithological journals) eschew such submissions. Conservation journals (e.g., Biological Conservation, or Conservation Biology) are more interested in umbrella or big-picture ideas, or at the least, novel methods/approaches (this is just my interpretation, and I’m happy to hear otherwise!). Not to mention a bias against marine organisms. As someone who works primarily on marine birds, this is particularly bothersome.
SDT** papers generally take the form of reviewing past population estimates & threats, adding in some new data, maybe an analysis, and at the end of the day, should provide the information needed by conservation authorities (international, national, or subnational; more on that below) to adequately know what’s going on. Very often, the historical data relating to seabirds’ distribution and abundance is… how shall I put it?… wrong. Errors on the ground (or, frankly, just wild guesses) get propagated in monumental (and exceptionally well-cited) tomes, and taken as the Gospel Truth. So SDT papers can be a chance to correct the record, which is crucial for effective (and sound) management and mitigation of things like bycatch. If you thought there were 300,000 of species X, then annual bycatch of 2000, though not good, wasn’t terrible. But if it turns out that a misplaced decimal here, and a poor survey there meant there were only 60,000, that allowable bycatch level becomes very worrying.
As a consequence, SDT papers tend to have lots of information, and some of it is messy. Lots of it is probably from grey literature, government reports, or unpublished data, and a SDT paper is a chance to get that information out into the wider world. But this is problematic for journals because they thrive on brevity. In one of my case studies, we were advised recently to cut the results section by 90% because “people do not want that level of detail”. Utter bollocks. In the other case study, the paper went through at least 4 formal revisions, and 2 with the handling editor, resulting in a paper that didn’t have a bunch of information in it.
The problem is only compounded when working in the non-English-speaking world, where much of the information is in “foreign literature” that is less accessible to the broader scientific community (that doesn’t mean you should ignore it, though!). SDT papers are a chance to get information in that Russian technical report, or that Korean government document into the English-speaking world (and let’s face it, science is an enterprise dominated by English, for better or worse).
Conservation is also practiced at a huge range of spatial scales – from global (think the IUCN Red List) to national (think COSEWIC in Canada, or the ESA in the US, or the Nature Directive in Europe), to subregional (states, provinces), or even local levels (individual breeding colonies). These all, ultimately, matter for conservation because these are the levels at which decisions that will affect species and populations are made. So if we have a species that has 90% of its population in Country A, and 10% in Country B, it’s important to know what’s going on in Country B because its policies, implementation, and national interest will affect that part of the population, and these can be different from Country A (arguments about genetic distinctiveness and “evolutionary significant units” aside).
So I hope I’ve now established why we need SDT research. The question is how to disseminate it, particularly at the national or subnational level? When I posed this question on Twitter, there were some excellent answers – Endangered Species Research (though when working with species that are globally Least Concern, I’m not sure how well that would go down. And there’s the €1050-1500 fee), and a variety of fish journals. In the bird world (where there is no shortage of journals!), there are 3 obvious choices. Avian Conservation and Ecology (of which I’m on the editorial board) generally doesn’t accept SDT papers. The Condor focuses on “the application of scientific theory and methods to the conservation, management, and ecology of birds; and the application of ornithological knowledge to conservation and management policy“, which in my mind doesn’t really fit SDT papers (or my experience with the journal). Bird Conservation International looks for papers on the “conservation of birds and the habitats upon which they depend“, which is the closest fit I’ve seen, but isn’t known for its speed (it’s also the one with which I have no experience, so again, I’m happy to hear otherwise in the Comments).
Given that the conservation of the natural world is really a broad way of saying the conservation of individual species (and the ecosystems they comprise), which depends on knowing the status, distribution, and threats these species face, I wonder why there isn’t a Journal of Species Conservation? Online-only (so no worries about length or colour figures or number of tables, etc.), of minimal cost to authors, ideally Open Access, and with relatively rapid publication. The focus would be on the conservation status, distribution, and threats to species (or groups of species) at any spatial scale. I know that’s a lot to ask, but a conservation biologist can dream, right?
I’m certainly not offering to start one up, but if an enterprising publisher were looking for an obvious niche to fill*** I’d strongly suggest this one, and would gladly help edit, review, and submit to such an outlet.
*Natural history journals shouldn’t be seen as a lower tier, but they are sometimes less likely to be online (and so more concerned with length and publishing costs), less widely available, and read/cited, and often take long times from submission/acceptance to publication.
** Yes, I chose the order of the words purposely
*** Let’s hold off on the debate about whether niches can, in fact, be empty.